Sacred Stones in Northern California

There are only two medieval structures in North America. Now a third is nearing the end of restoration in the small agricultural town of Vina, California, 100 miles north of Sacramento. It’s the 12th century Chapter House of Santa Maria de Oliva, a Spanish monastery that stood near Madrid. This building’s round the world journey makes an interesting tale.

The monks began their day in the Chapter House, where a chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict, an ancient guide to monastic living, was read and interpreted. This went on through the centuries until 1835, when the Spanish government closed all small monasteries and seized their lands. Santa Maria de Oliva was sold to a wealthy family that used the Chapter House to store farm equipment.

In 1931, William Randolpf Hearst bought the Chapter House for $285,000, intending to use the stones in the interior of a house he planned near Mt. Shasta. All the stones were marked for reassembly, and sent to California on 11 separate ships. The depression and WWII delayed Hearst’s plan, and in the end he donated the stones to the City of San Francisco to erect a Medieval museum in Golden Gate Park. This never happened and the stones lay outdoors in the park. Many were damaged, lost, or used for other projects

Meanwhile, the Cistercian Abbey of New Clarvaux was founded in Vina in 1955, and the first abbot began to make inquiries. In 1994, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco gave the stones to New Clarvaux with the stipulation that reconstruction begin in 10 years and the completed Chapter House be open to the public.

I first went to New Clarivaux in 1998 to stay for a few days at their retreat facilities. It’s an amazing place to unwind, and I have been there a number of times, so I saw the foundation of the Chapter House laid in 2001.

Section of New Clairvaux guest rooms

I had not been there recently, however, so when I drove up this past weekend, I found the structure was almost done – almost meaning another 18 months in a 10 year effort. Only 40% of the original stones were usable. The rest had to be repaired or replaced by stonemasons the abbey employed (they’ve raised $6.3 million to date, largely through small donations from across the country).

Master stonemason, Frank Helmholz, left Vina in November, bound for Luxor, Egypt, where he will spend the winter restoring a 3,400 year old temple. He plans to return to Vina next May. In an interview for the abbey newsletter, Helmholz said:

“In this modern age when everything is done fast and often doesn’t last long and serves no higher purpose, carving stones is a bit of a refuge. To create something that takes patience, dedication, and is lasting is very rewarding. And serving the monks in their spiritual lives gives a greater sense of meaning that is rare nowadays…to be part of something that has a higher purpose than one’s own comfort is inspiring in whatever form it takes.”

The abbey newsletter points out another significant point in the life of the Chapter House. It was built by Cistercians in Spain. Now it stands in another Cistercian abbey in the land that once was called New Spain. The stones have finally come home.

I have only alluded to the retreat facilities at New Clairvaux. In addition to nut crops and a vineyard, it’s one of the ways the monks earn their living, and it’s a marvelous place to spend some time apart. I will post about it later, but meanwhile, you can follow the link below for a summary.

4 thoughts on “Sacred Stones in Northern California

    • I found it interesting too. I got the number two from the abbey newsletter, which didn’t list where the others are. The cloisters in New York? I don’t know.

      If you have the time, inclination, and nice weather in January, the most direct route is up I-5 to Corning, then eight miles east to Vina, past Woodson Bridge state park. Right now, in the late fall, it’s gorgeous.


  1. The Cloisters is right. According to Wikipedia, there are more than three:
    Medieval building that have been transported to North America in modern times.

    The Cloisters museum, New York City, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art housed in a complex integrating elements from several different medieval structures
    St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church, a 12th-century cloister from Spain, reassembled in Florida
    Elements of a 12th-century cloister from Saint-Génis-des-Fontaines Abbey, a Romanesque portal, and a 15th-century chapel in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
    Part of a Romanesque cloister in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
    Chapelle de St Martin de Sayssuel, (St. Joan of Arc Chapel) Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    Agecroft Hall, Richmond, Virginia
    Chapterhouse of the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila, under reconstruction at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, Vina, California
    A 1524 sidechapel from France in the Detroit Institute of Arts

    Other later period buildings were also transported like the Cotswold Cottage, built in the early 17th century in Chedworth, Gloucestershire, England, now in The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, London, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1677 is now in Fulton, Missouri. It includes a spiral staircase which probably dates to the 15th century.

    Fascinating. I would never have known this but for your always-interesting blog.


    • Thanks for the additional research, Rosi. There is something compelling about buildings that have stood for generations, especially here, where we live in an “old” house that is still younger than I am. Thinking about this has given me an idea for another post…


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